To say Jim Henson was a magical human being is an understatement. He is one of those humans I hold in the highest regard for the way they selflessly benefited society with their own immutable imaginations. I was lucky enough to meet Jerry Nelson (Henson’s right hand man) as a kid and that was a life-changer for me, as he was exactly as sweet as you would imagine any muppeteer to be, and it had a huge impact on me. The imagination that seeped from Henson and the cavalcade of amazing artists he kept around him at all times, was utterly astounding. And nowhere was this unbridled creativity more on display than when Henson and his crew helped to create the fantastic universes from some of the following films, which dared to step beyond the usual puppet tropes we were all used to.
While I adore all his muppet films, this list is about the movies he made without his core of beloved characters, and how “far out” and remarkable some of those films were. Note that Jim Henson had his hands in most of these films, creatively speaking, but only in the example of Labyrinth did he actually direct any of these, and in the case of The Dark Crystal, Henson co-directed with good friend and fellow puppeteer, Frank Oz. And though he may not have had anything to do with the final film on the list, personally, his legacy is clearly on display in it, earning it the final spot on this list. A hero, a father, and a husband, let’s take a moment to explore some of Henson’s non-muppet movies, shall we?
The Dark Crystal
I always found it astounding that they gave her nipples. The devil is oft in the details.
Did The Dark Crystal have as powerful an impact on you as it did me? Every single thing about the “another world” in this film still astounds me. For all intents and purposes, Frank Oz and Jim Henson created an almost fully realized world, built to scale, and nothing about this film is not jaw-dropping, atleast personally speaking. But I really believe a lot of the impact came from just how dark and chilling the story (and visuals) were at the time. Take, for example, the Skeksis, which I will proudly stand next to any creatures in horror for just how effective and unsettling they are:
Wonderful Jim Henson stuff like this is half the reason I despise the impersonal nature of CG creatures.
The Dark Crystal was a profound experience for people of my generation, who up to that point, thought of Jim Henson as the “Muppet” guy. It was an epic story, told through fantastical settings and a world so palpably real, you forget you are watching puppetry by the end of the film. And I think the scene where they disrobe that one Skeksis in a sort of act of mutiny scared the absolute shit out of me as a child, which is ANOTHER reason I love Henson. He never pandered to us. He knew fear was a HUGE part of childhood, and he had no problem tapping into that to further the impact of the tale he was telling.
Another perfect example of Henson going for that fear response.
Much like The Dark Crystal, Witches kinda messed some kids up. I don’t think too many people who didn’t read the book as a child had any clue just how truly dark a cautionary tale it was (think the donkey scene from Pinocchio, only instead of donkeys, kids get turned into mice) and that final scene is awesome, when all the witches are gathered together, and the main witch reveals herself, and then mayhem happens, and you see the witches for what they truly look like. Some of them are all bald and stuff, and they are trying to turn the children into mice, and some of the children are mice, and they are running around and everyone is panicking and, and, and…
Wow, didn’t breathe that whole time.
And that kind of sums up Witches. It is madness, and it is fun. It was also one of the last films Henson worked on personally before his death, which also makes it memorable. But again, props to Henson for not watering down his craven imagery at times, and allowing us all to wallow in fear from time to time. He deserves far more credit for that than he ever gets. Also, Witches made me wonder how Henson would have done had he been hired to do special effects for The Thing. Seriously, Dark Crystal and Witches always make me wonder what Henson would have done had he been given free reign to do horror. Ofcourse, he was way too sweet to ever do that to his fan base, bless his soul. But I still wonder what could have been.
I am using all my strength and respect to now make an “ass to ass” joke about Jennifer Connelly and Hoggle here.
Labyrinth is one of those “just wow” movies for me. There are only a handful of them, and most Henson movies make the list, because honestly, I sat there, watching this movie, just saying wow, over and over again. And unlike The Dark Crystal, which Henson co-directed with Frank Oz, Labyrinth was a solo directing adventure for Henson, forever proving to people that he wasn’t just a master puppeteer, but a master storyteller as well. It also introduced me to my life-long crush on Jennifer Connelly, so the movie is the bringer of many milestones. And much like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth was a dark tale about how we need to be careful what we wish for.
It is the film that also made David Bowie’s impish penis famous. Seriously, what was up with that spandex? I actually (sort of) got to interview that baby, now all grown up, to get some answers, but ultimately found out nothing, as is usually the case with me. Screw it, though, because I still sing Magic Dance all the damn time, regardless.
This movie was like reading an upside down kid’s book on LSD.
Empire Strikes Back
What you are seeing here is genius at work. Oh, and Tobais Funke.
I know calling Empire a Henson film is a true stretch, but what you need to understand is, Henson was called in to create Yoda, who went on to become one of the most iconic characters in all of film, so to not include it here, when we are talking about Henson’s moments of cinematic impact, would be asinine. It was Henson’s hand (with Frank Oz) that created Yoda, from look to voice, and it was that character who helped form the heart and soul of the Star Wars franchise, and some people tend to forget just how integral Jim Henson was with the creation of this Star Wars character, who many of you know, love, and still quote to this day.
So not let your forget about Henson’s part in all this, I must.
MirrorMask is an oft underseen beauty of a movie, surreal and ethereal.
Sit down, because the levels of nerd awesomery on display here are astounding.
The Henson company wanted to make another movie, post the tragic passing of Henson, that would have Henson’s fantastic imagination and creativity on display, but also show people they were moving forward into a new era. Cue Lisa Henson (Jim’s daughter) calling up the amazing Neil Gaimen, and asking him if he would write a script for them, in the vain of old Henson, sort of. Neil obliged, and the end result of that is the trippy, jaw-dropping MirrorMask, from 2005.
So how does on describe MirrorMask? Well, one doesn’t. One simply tells you all you need to see it, with an open mind, and hopes for your own sake you do. It is Alice in Wonderland meets Pan’s Labyrinth, and while it may not always make sense, some of the most wonderful things in life rarely do, as many examples on this list prove.
Jim Henson was ahead of his time with heart and imagination, and he is a man who helped form our childhood’s, and hopefully, our children’s children’s childhoods as well. You see, this level of awesome never goes out of style, and with films like this and nerds like me always talking about him, hopefully he never will.
R.I.P Jim Henson. We miss you, everyday.